Saturday, March 28, 2009

1919: "The Uncanny" by Sigmund Freud

The Author:
Sigmund Freud
Born in 1856 to a poor Jewish family in Moravia (in what is now the Czech Republic), Freud and his family moved to Vienna, Austria in 1860. In 1881, Freud got his medical degree at the University of Vienna and in 1900, he published his groundbreaking Interpretations of Dreams, which—literary scholars will note--“revolutionized the reading of two major canonical texts of Western culture”, SophoclesOedipus Rex (circa 429 BCE) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (circa 1601) (Leitch et al, 916).

Freud was eighty-one-years old when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. He immigrated to London in May of 1838 and died there a little more than a year later, in September 1839.

Since Freud’s death, his writings have come under increasing scrutiny for “diverging from the protocols of science.” But they have grown in importance for literary scholars, who appreciate his attention to language, to the challenges of narrative, and to the way human reason both resists and is “motivated by . . . unconscious desires and forces” (Leitch, 913). As the editors of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism put it, “For Freud, it is always as if a bourgeois drama is playing on the conscious stage of the psyche, while a Greek tragedy is going on somewhere else.” (916)

The Text:
“The Uncanny” (1919)

“The Uncanny” analyzes the “uncanny” return of certain “disturbing, the unsettling, the uncomfortable” elements in E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman” (1816). Freud links these unsettling elements to castration anxieties and uses Hoffman’s story as evidence for his theory of “the compulsion to repeat,” “a psychological phenomenon in which a person feels the need to repeat, remember and work through [traumatic] memories that have been repressed.” (Clark)

Translated Excerpts (from German):
"A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one's eyes, the fear of going blind [which is a central theme in “The Sandmann”], is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated. The self-blinding of the mythical criminal, Oedipus, was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration — the only punishment that was adequate for him by the lex talionis [law of retaliation in kind (Latin)].” (Leitch, 938)

Crucial elements in Hoffman’s story “seem arbitrary and meaningless so long as we deny all connection between fears about the eye and castration; but they become intelligible as soon as we replace the Sand-Man by the dreaded father at whose hands castration is expected.” (938)

“To some people the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all. And yet psycho-analysis has taught us that this terrifying phantasy is only a transformation of another phantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness—the phantasy, I mean of intra-uterine existence.” (946) That is to say, the fear of being buried alive may be a repressed desire to return to the mother’s womb.

When the “stage [of narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man] has been surmounted, the ‘double’ reverse its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.” (940)

With maturity, the idea of the “double” transforms into an agency that “is able to stand over against the rest of the ego, which has the function of observing and criticizing the self and of exercising a censorship with the mind, and which we become aware of as our ‘conscience. In the pathological case of delusions of being watched, this mental agency becomes isolated, dissociated from the ego . . .” (940)

Leitch, Vincent B, et al ed.
Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.
Clark, Robert. "Repetition Compulsion". The Literary Encyclopedia. 24 October 2005. [, accessed 18 February 2009.]


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